John Tejada is a well established and highly respected techno musician – but his roots lie in an upbringing full of classical music. Arcana called him on a break from work in his California studio, where he wrote his tenth album Signs Under Test, released on Kompakt this month.
He spoke about the benefits of a musically open family, how that led him to hone his own approach to music, and why he loves the music of Steve Reich. But first, after a quick listen…
Can you remember your first encounter with classical music?
My first memories were from my parents, with my mother being an opera singer and my father a clarinettist and conductor. I would often get dragged around to gigs! One of my first memories was seeing them practice, and that made it very real. I think that probably that programmed me into the routine of how you get up, have breakfast and then practice, and that has stuck with me right through to this day. It was a big influence in what I do now.
There are often moments in your music where you are subtly very inventive, using unusual rhythms and less conventional harmonic patterns. Does that stem from your upbringing do you think?
I suppose it does, but I couldn’t properly explain it. It’s one of the different ways I got to where I am now. My focus is not on getting played out by DJs but it is an enjoyment of listening to what feels interesting. Getting the fuzzy feeling, that’s what I’m after!
What does classical music mean to you?
I wouldn’t say that ‘classical’ music means a great deal to me, as I tend towards the stuff that the more modern composers did, I would go with my mum to see Steve Reich concerts; we’d go to see that stuff together. I don’t actively listen to the classic stuff, but because opera was always on at full blast in the house I got to hear a lot of it. It gave me an interesting perspective on what music is and what it can do. It has stuck with me the whole way through.
The categorisation of what is classical music has always puzzled me. The early works of Stockhausen are classical but today sound like something like that could be released on Torch Records! Looking back, it’s pretty wild what was going on in the 1950s and 1960s compared to what people do today.
Is Steve Reich a big influence on your work?
Absolutely. One of the biggest goose bumps I have ever had was going to see the Music for 18 Musicians live for the first time:
You start to see that live, and you say “Holy shit, it’s real!” It flared up a real love of the music in me. No-one bothered to notice that on my last album The Predicting Machine there is a strong nod to Reich on the fourth track, Winter Skies:
Reich was so revolutionary in the way he showed people could have ideas of just using tape loops. He was a massive influence on digital music today with the loops and the phase experiments – he laid the fundamentals to what people are still doing now. I would love to see Music for 18 Musicians performed on synths, I think that would be really successful.
What would you say classical music – as you listen to it – and techno have in common?
I think a lot of stuff! I really enjoy making those connections. I think classical music – and the music of Reich – refers to looped and non-looped music that is beatless. The question for techno is ‘Can you do that with a beat?’ For me though the fundamentals of techno and drone are laid down without a beat. Terry Riley and Steve Reich discovered that. It is an interesting connection there, but I find a lot of people won’t give it a chance. It’s like eating a vegetable. There are times when I won’t explore because I just don’t know.
What do you know and like at the moment?
I am a big fan of Terry Riley, because he is one of those great composers who cross into other areas. In his album A Rainbow in Curved Air he used music in a way that would give Autechre a run for their money:
I also think early Art of Noise records are really interesting, you have people trying stuff out – because why not? I remember when I was listening to some of this stuff at home, and being nearly asleep but being scared silly at the same time! We had some really interesting radio in the mid-1980s, and I was absorbing some crazy stuff.
I remember one time when one of my friends came round who was writing some particularly experimental stuff. He was playing that new stuff for me, which was a real risk for him playing it at full blast. Mum came in and said, “What are you playing, it’s really interesting – it sounds like…” and then she named three different composers. It wasn’t the standard request to turn it down at all!
Would you like to try writing more classically based music?
I have done some more experimental things on labels like Plug Research, but yes – I do have an idea to do something that is modern classical. We’ll see how that develops!
John Tejada’s new album Signs Under Test is out now on Kompakt – and you can listen to it on the label’s website here. For more about the artist himself, visit his Facebook page